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June 10, 2015 | Volume 9 | Number 6
June 10, 2015
By Christopher J. Budnick and Larissa K. Barber, PhD
The United States is in the midst of an incivility epidemic. Seventy percent of polled Americans indicated that incivility is a current societal crisis (Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate, & KRC Research, 2013). Additionally, 98 percent of polled Americans reported experiencing incivility on-the-job (Porath & Pearson, 2013). This epic proportion of uncivil workplace experiences has grave implications for effective organizational functioning.
Consider that 26 percent of people have quit a job over an uncivil workplace culture (Weber Shandwick et al., 2013), or that incivility increases burnout (Sulea, Filipescu, Horga, Ortan, & Fischmann, 2012) which motivates employee absenteeism (Schaufeli, Bakker, & Van Rhenen, 2009). Uncivil work cultures generate lower leadership, coworker and general work satisfaction, as well as increased tardiness and decreased productivity (Lim, Cortina, & Magley, 2008; Sliter, Sliter, & Jex, 2012). Incivility also harms employees’ mental and physical health (Lim et al., 2008), which can exacerbate organizational healthcare expenditures and limit productivity.
Unfortunately, incivility’s negative outcomes are not limited to employees who are directly targeted for (or even instigate) incivility. Simply observing two coworkers having an uncivil interaction is enough to foster negative evaluations of the person behaving rudely (Reich & Hershcovis, 2015). Moreover, incivility observers are more likely to punish that rudeness, assuming relative privacy and that the punishment is work related (e.g., assign the person undesirable tasks; Reich & Hershcovis, 2015).
Incivility might also alter customers’ experiences with the organization, as 25 percent of employees who experienced workplace incivility also took their frustration out on their customers (Porath & Pearson, 2013). Similarly, observers of uncivil interactions are less willing to help another person (e.g., a customer), even if no connection exists between that person and the uncivil interaction (Porath & Pearson, 2013).
Given that workplace incivility can have harmful effects on employee and organizational functioning, we highlight some personality and situational characteristics that predispose people toward incivility perceptions. Then, we present three practical and scientifically grounded suggestions for effectively reducing workplace incivility.
Organizational health psychologists formally define incivility as behaviors that are “characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others” (Andersson & Pearson, 1999; p. 1999). Uncivil behavior is not necessarily malicious; rather it often likely occurs unintentionally because of thoughtlessness or distraction. Because intent to harm is ambiguous with rude behavior, it is open to individual interpretation.
Imagine a situation in which Pam greets Greg in the corridor, but does not receive a response. Potentially, Greg was lost in thought because he was in a hurry to get to an important appointment and thus did not hear the greeting. However, Pam can only guess at the reason for Greg’s lack of a return greeting. If Pam believes that Greg intentionally ignored her, this perception might negatively affect her emotions, thoughts and behaviors during subsequent job duties or interactions. Other examples of potential incivility include using one’s cell phone during a meeting or interrupting another person.
The centrality of ambiguous intent to incivility holds important implications for which employees might be more or less likely to perceive an interaction as uncivil. Initial research suggests some characteristics that bias employees toward workplace incivility perceptions. People who are highly emotionally stable or open to new experiences perceive less incivility in ambiguous social information (Sliter, Withrow, & Jex, 2015), but high levels of positive and negative experienced emotions, as well as trait anger, increase workplace incivility perceptions (Sliter et al., 2015).
When feeling sleepy, people also tend to interpret ambiguous social information (e.g., incivility) as negative (Barber & Budnick, 2015; Ree & Harvey, 2006). Thus, one effective method to reduce workplace incivility is to create a work environment with clear guidelines for acceptable and positive workplace interactions (i.e., organizational civility norms).
Due to inherently powerful positions, leaders (especially direct supervisors) can wield this influence to create or alter workplace norms through their on-the-job behavior; that is, the example that they set for employees while working. Research suggests that leaders should: 1) use civil language, 2) respectfully listen to others, 3) maintain inclusive attitudes, and 4) demonstrate respect and understanding when interacting with others at work (Heinemann, 1996). Additionally, employees’ workplace interactions might benefit from their leader’s emotional displays.
The emotions that leaders display influence the emotions that employees experience. A supervisor who has a positive mood at work is also more likely to have followers’ with positive work moods; alternatively, negative moods among leaders can also predict followers’ negative mood (Johnson, 2008). Therefore incorporating the above suggestions into employee interactions might offset any personality (Sliter et al., 2015) or situational (i.e., sleepiness; Barber & Budnick, 2015) characteristics that can trigger negative interpretations of ambiguous information. Thus, organizational leadership should lead by example and model civility.
Engage…Employees in Norm Development
Soliciting employee feedback while generating workplace civility norms can provide valuable insights into employees’ typical workplace experience, but it should also help employees’ feel heard—known as employee voice. Employees feel like they have a voice in the organization when they have opportunities to communicate their concerns, problems, issues or ideas to leadership (Rees, Alfes, & Gatenby, 2013). Employees who feel heard by leadership have more positive work attitudes, are more engaged, perform better and trust their leaders more (Rees et al., 2013). Moreover, employees involved in workplace civility norm development might exhibit greater buy-in to organizational goals or adhere to organizational expectations because they contributed to their creation.
After identifying uncivil workplace behaviors common within their organization, organizational leaders can formalize norms into display rules. Display rules are standards or guidelines for appropriate emotional displays within the workplace (Cropanzano, Weiss, & Elias, 2003). For example, Ochsner Health System incorporates “the 10/5 way” (Porath & Pearson, 2013). This formalized norm dictates that if employees are within 10 feet of another person, then they must make eye contact and smile.
If employees are within five feet, then they must greet the other person (i.e., say “hello;” Porath & Pearson, 2013). Consequently, this formalized guideline has increased both patient satisfaction and patient referrals (Porath & Pearson, 2013). Although this particular type of guideline may not be appropriate for all types of work settings and occupations, the idea behind its development is a useful starting point for other organizations.
Clearly stated expectations for workplace interactions derived from employee input should decrease employee perceptions of incivility by removing ambiguity. Organizational leaders could include a standard ‘civility clause’ in each job description, which formally indicates that employees are to engage other employees in a respectful and civil manner. If civil interactions are a focal organizational value, performance evaluations might reflect items consistent with the job description’s ‘civility clause.’
Clearly stated expectations can also be crystalized into zero-tolerance policies that apply to all organizational levels (see Pearson & Porath, 2005 for organizational exemplars). A zero-tolerance policy both defines a formalized organizational value and provides a strategy for measuring, evaluating and correcting employee behavior (Pearson & Porath, 2005). Clearly presenting civility expectations to employees, both verbally and in writing, is critical for this type of policy to succeed (Pearson & Porath, 2005).
Thus, leadership should endeavor to develop expectations for workplace interactions, include employees in that norm development process and clearly present those expectations to employees as formal policy (e.g., job description, values statement, zero-tolerance policies).
Maintain…Multiple Resolution Avenues
Simply stating civility norms will not significantly reduce workplace incivility. Leaders must also enforce civility norms in a timely and skillful manner. Failing to address workplace incivility at its inception might foster an incivility spiral (see Figure 1). Incivility spirals occur when two people repeatedly direct escalated incivilities at one and other over time.
Figure 1. The incivility spiral. Repeated escalating uncivil interactions contribute to an incivility spiral. The “Tipping Point” represents when uncivil behavior escalates into outright aggressive actions.
Consider the earlier example of Pam and Greg. Believing that Greg intentionally ignored her, Pam might deliver an escalated response. For example, Pam might interrupt Greg in front of their peers during their next area meeting. Greg, upset at the interruption, might then perceive himself as the victim of Pam’s unjustified incivility. To save face, Greg might respond to Pam with his own act of escalated incivility, such as undermining her authority in front of her subordinates. Such reciprocal uncivil interactions, and their observation by coworkers, might contribute to a culture of incivility over time (Andersson & Pearson, 1999).
In extreme cases, the incivility spiral might reach a tipping point where retaliatory behaviors become outright aggressive. Another key benefit to promoting employee voice is that employees may feel they have multiple avenues to address uncivil behavior without resorting to retaliation. Therefore, it is advisable for leaders to maintain an open door policy. Such policies allow all employees to approach leaders at all levels in the organization.
Open-door policies are important, as employees having an uncivil interaction with a coworker they perceive as friendly with (or a favorite of) the supervisor might be reluctant to address the behavior with that supervisor. Being able to seek mediation through an alternative avenue would likely resolve such concerns.
Even if avenues exist for employees to address uncivil behavior, leadership must also commit to following up on reports of workplace incivility. If employees perceive that their concerns go unaddressed, they will not continue to voice those concerns to organizational leaders (Porath & Pearson, 2005). Offended employees without voice might take matters into their own hands by retaliating against the perceived slight, thereby kicking off an incivility spiral.
Even if a report of an uncivil interaction only reflects thoughtlessness without harmful intentions, leadership should use that situation as an opportunity to assist the employee in reframing the event in a more adaptive manner. Helping employees to examine the incident from the other person’s perspective might help employees to avoid similar future situations.
Perspective-taking exercises may also assist the insulted employee in forgiving that perceived rudeness (Takaku, 2001). Fair processes for addressing employees’ incivility concerns should also increase employees’ perceptions of their organization as just and ethical, which can ultimately reduce work-related stress (Sert, Elci, Uslu, & Sener, 2014).
People regularly experience incivility, and that experience holds unique challenges for the workplace. Incivility detrimentally affects both employees and their organizations, which harms organizational functioning both directly via reduced productivity and indirectly via negative customer interactions.
It is crucial that leadership take steps to reduce uncivil workplace interactions. Therefore, we focused on one cost-effective method to reduce workplace incivility—developing strong organizational civility norms, or guidelines. Based on scientific research, organizations will likely experience reduced incivility if leadership: 1) leads by example, 2) engages employees in norm development, and 3) maintains multiple resolution avenues. Clear expectations for civil workplace interactions will limit incivility’s negative effects on employee and organizational functioning and well-being.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program under Grant No. (G1A 62516). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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